News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 18, 2013

Americans for Prosperity aim to browbeat GOP lawmakers

INDIANAPOLIS — If you're outside the Indianapolis TV market, you may not have seen yet the Americans for Prosperity ad that demonizes the House Republicans for resisting Republican Gov. Mike Pence's tax cut plan.

But GOP Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee Chairman Brandt Hershman has. And he's not impressed.

The mild-mannered, measured-worded Hershman describes it as “disingenuous” in content and “overheated” in rhetoric.

The ad is part of a statewide media campaign recently launched by a national Tea Party organization with ties to Pence and founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Kansas.

“It reminds me of the rhetoric that takes place in Washington, D.C.” Hershman told me last week. “It's very aggressive in its message.”

The one-minute ad is a rip-off of a campaign commercial that former Gov. Mitch Daniels once ran. It starts with the muscular “Mutiny on the Sea” music and flashes of newspaper headlines touting the state's budget surplus.

Then it abruptly switches to ominous music and headlines that point to the GOP House budget plan - now in the Senate - that includes $1 billion more in spending than Pence's proposed budget and excludes Pence's plan to cut the state income tax rate by 10 percent.  

It ends with words flashing on the screen: “Will Indiana grow the economy? Or grow government spending?”

Hershman, a fiscal conservative with high ratings from pro-business and pro-tax reform groups, would like people to believe that he and his GOP colleagues in the General Assembly have been working for the first option and against the second.  

His major criticism of the ad is the role of the AFP “in misrepresenting  the House Republican budget as a billion in new spending,” he said.

The ad, he said, fails to acknowledge that much of that spending is the backfilling of prior cuts (to schools and other public services like road repair) that was due to the sharp drop in state revenues brought on by the 2008 recession.

He's hoping viewers of the ad will understand the reluctance of GOP lawmakers who remember that after Indiana built up a big budget surplus in 1998, a series of subsequent property and income tax cuts lead to a $1.3 billion deficit six years later, prompting what Hershman recalls as “painful and difficult” decisions about what state services to slash.

And that those same viewers might be skeptical of a one-minute ad funded by an outside organization that taps into the anxiety and anger of taxpayers-emotions that Hershman attributes largely to the dysfunctional climate of Washington, D.C.

“It's not a bad idea to have aggressive debate on tax and budget issues,” Hershman said. “As long the debate is civil and reasonable.”

The Americans for Prosperity ad, meant to browbeat reluctant Republican lawmakers, is running at the same time that Indiana's Republican governor is traveling the state, urging voters to browbeat their legislators into accepting his plan.

Hershman said “good public policy” needs to drive the debate among legislators, not fear that an outside special interest group will come after them. (The fear is real: The Americans for Prosperity brought down Republicans who dared to disagree with a similar tax cut plan proposed by GOP Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback last year.)

“If you start allowing your decisions or the process to be influenced by fear of any special interest group, it diminishes your effectiveness as a legislator,” Hershman said. “I'm not going to do that.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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